Color Theory, Part 1
Heraldry, Part I
Heraldry, Part IMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
The client looked nice enough, he knew what he wanted, accepted my price; the character had personality and was not cliche. Then he sent me this: "I'm sorry but I forgot to mention that, as a page of the Duke of Tyrus, Bertrand bears the coat of arms of his liege: argent a gryphon segreant gules."
What the heck does that mean!?
All right, the odds you might need to translate such a line are slim enough, but be sure that, at one point or another, you will find yourself drawing, inventing, or having to describe a coat of arms. Our imaginary client was properly describing his character's emblem using blazon, the technical language of heraldry, a very specific, fascinating field incredibly rich in symbols. For the next few issues of EMG-zine I shall guide you through this ancient world.
Oh, you work with science fiction, so no chance of medieval trappings? Well, I've never heard of a Space Marine who didn't care a great deal for his regimental insignia, have you?
As I said, blazon is the technical language of heraldry, the science dealing with coats of arms. The word comes from German blazen, to blow the horn, because a knight's arrival at a tournament was announced by blowing a horn, as signal for the heralds to come and inspect the newly arrived knight's coat of arms and announce it to the public.
Heralds were the experts of insignia. Often nobles themselves, they studied both the theoretical principles of heraldry and the specific coats of arms of their times. They were often entrusted with diplomatic missions and always held in high esteem. In England and Scotland the College of Heralds still exists. The English version of blazon is based on old Norman French, the language of the aristocracy who developed English heraldry
Coat of Arms
A full coat of arms (or, more properly, Achievement of Arms) can be quite complex. In the example you see the one belonging to Amedeo the 6th of Savoy (known as the Green Count), an Italian nobleman who lived in the fourteenth century.
2. Collar (military or civic decorations are included in an achievement of arms)
Note that not all of these elements are essential, and their use isn't universal. For instance, in England the mantling can be stylized in a decorative shape similar to acanthus leaves and it doesn't have a specific meaning, while in Italy, from 1890 on its use was exclusive to the royal family. The helm was, from the beginning, the sign of a knight, so only the emblems of noble and knightly houses bear a helm. It is not present, for instance, in the coats of arms of ladies, members of the church, bourgeois, or guilds (1). Shape and position of a helm indicate the degree of nobility of the coat's owner, and even, in ancient heraldry, if the owner was or wasn't a legitimate son. (A closed helm facing the viewer's right was the "bastard's helm".)
The crest was often used as an additional element of identification, it isn't an essential part of the coat of arms then word crest should not be used (contrary to common practice) as a substitute for coat of arms.
A crown can also be present, generally corresponding to the rank already indicated by the helm (each degree of nobility has its own crown or coronet), as can two figures, either human or animal, holding the shield upright: the tenants.
All in all, the only essential components of a coat of arms are the shield and the figures painted on it. In the beginning heraldry had a very practical aim: to allow the bearer of a coat to be recognized during a battle without having to take off his helm. Therefore most of the "rules" of heraldry (which we'll see next month) are there simply to make emblems more easily recognizable.
Nowadays the specific shape of a shield in one�s coat of arms is often a matter of personal choice, but some countries have a "national" shape, and, in older coats, the kind of shield can say something about the coat's age and nationality.
The almond shield (n.1) is among the oldest known shapes. It was in use in warfare in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Also ancient is the flag (or square) shield (n.4), which was mostly used in France. Number 2 is called continental in English-speaking countries; it is also known as modern, French or (in Italy, where it is the official shield shape) samnite. Number 3 is one of the many ornate shapes of Renaissance shields. It is believed to derive from the jousting shields that often had indentations where the knight's lance could rest during the charge. Number 5 is the ancient shape traditionally attributed to English shields, while number 6, the lozenge, in English heraldry is not counted among shields at all. It was used to bear the emblem of unmarried or widowed women and some consider it to be derived from the shape of the distaff.
Next month, we shall examine some basic conventions of heraldry, beginning with the use of colors and metals.
(1) Contrary to common belief not only nobles or knights (who weren't accounted among nobility until the late XIII century) had the right to bear arms. Influencial commoners (landowners or merchants, for instance) did too, as rightfully did, for instance, commoners who distinguished themselves in battle. Self-assumption was one of the common ways to get a coat of arms, the only restriction was against consciously taking the emblem already rightfully borne by another family, self-assumed coats, though, were by some jurists considered of lesser dignity than arms granted by a lord.
Bonomi-heraldryillo1 from Chiusano, Saporiti, Elementi di Araldica, Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore dell Esercito Roma 1995 plate 36
Bonomi-heraldryillo2 ibidem modified from plates 1 and 2
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